For many businesses, the call center is the heart of customer service. It’s where customers call in for help and reps call out for sales. It’s referred to as a “call center” because traditional models of customer service are based on phone support as the main method of contact between customers and companies. However, today, call center agents interact with customers through a variety of channels. The call center has evolved into the contact center.
Traditionally, a call center is an office where a large number of call center agents provide customer service over the telephone. Inbound call centers receive calls for customer support and often serve as a knowledge base for tech support, billing questions, and other customer service issues. These call centers focus on quick call resolution times and agent productivity. In outbound call centers, agents make calls rather than receive them. These could be sales calls, marketing offers, surveys, fundraising requests, or debt collection, for example.
The term “contact center” (or “contact center”) reflects the modern reality that there are many other ways to connect with a customer these days besides by telephone. The combined trends of increased customer expectations and newer technologies that allow for many channels of communication are creating a shift in the traditional call center model which has existed for decades. Consumers want more ways to reach businesses, and businesses are looking for new ways to improve customer experience.
While call center agents generally focus on inbound and outbound calls, either on traditional phone lines or over VoIP, contact center agents handle a wide variety of communications. In a modern multichannel contact center, technical support might be delivered over in-app chat or video, while order status updates are delivered via SMS, event promotions are sent as push notifications, surveys are deployed over Facebook Messenger, and sales inquiries received by email are sent directly to an agent to connect by phone. Call centers handle voice communications, contact centers handle all communications.
A company’s contact center is usually integrated with their customer relationship management (CRM) system, where all interactions between the organization and the public are tracked, coordinated, and managed. Depending on the infrastructure and ecosystem, it could be comprised of an alphabet soup of complex components. Many companies have purchased off-the-shelf systems or a highly customized network of technologies from multiple vendors. Some companies have adopted a cloud-based solution or two, but they remain siloed from the rest of their systems and can’t talk to each other.
The Creation Myth
Call centers originate from the Automatic Call Distributor developed in 1973 by US firm Rockwell (the Rockwell Galaxy) to allow Continental Airlines to run a telephone booking system. Rockwell did indeed develop their ACD in 1973 and it was installed that year. But it certainly was not the first.
The basic features of the modern call center can be recognized almost ten years before this, in the mid-1960s. Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) began to be used to handle large numbers of customer contacts.
That computer technology is the Automatic Call Distributor, and its development is closely linked to that of the call center. ACD systems allow calls to be filtered and assigned to the best possible agents available at the time. An algorithm determines which agent receives which call.
The First Call Centers
The first ACD systems would probably have emerged in the 1950s to handle central operator enquiries at the main telephone companies. To date we have not been to find any concrete evidence of this so far.
The earliest example of a call center we can find in the UK is at The Birmingham Press and Mail. They had a GEC PABX 4 ACD, installed in 1965, as seen in the photos. Thanks to the British Telephones website for allowing us to reproduce them.
Already the hallmarks of the call center can be seen in the rows of agents with individual phone terminals, taking and making calls.
The Ericsson PABX ET 4 was a fully automatic Strowger Telephone system with a cordless operator’s console. It superseded the PABX No. 3 and was manufactured by Ericsson Telephones of Beeston, Notts. The ACD system was an adaptation of this PABX ET 4 system.
By the early 1970s, PABX systems were beginning to include ACD technology, allowing the development of large-scale call centers.
In May 1972, the New Scientist magazine reported that Barclaycard had installed a Plessey PABX at its Northampton processing center. This included an ACD to allow up to 72 enquiries to be dealt in cyclic order. The agents on this system were able to check the credit card records of Barclaycard’s 1.6 million customers via a microfiche reference system.
In 1972 Gas World reported the installation of an ACD system at British Gas in Wales. The system had the capacity to handle up to 20,000 calls per week. This may have been the first multilingual system as it handled both Welsh and English calls. It was reported that Welsh-speaking customers in Aberystwyth at first found it strange to be telling someone in Wrexham of their problems.
Big Names Enter the Market
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s technological advances consolidated the importance of call centers to business. Many of today’s big names established themselves in the UK during this period.
In 1985, Direct Line was founded by Peter Wood, becoming the first company to sell insurance entirely over the telephone.
Call center technology allowed these companies to base their entire business model on telephone sales. In the USA, Aspect Telecommunications was founded by Jim Carreker.
Aspect’s systems improved upon the early ACDs. They allowed calls made from touch-tone phones to be routed more efficiently by distinguishing between types of calls and connecting them to specialized teams of agents. This cut down call waiting times and allowed call centers to deal with an increase in call volumes brought about by the introduction of toll-free phone numbers.
Aspect entered the UK market in 1989, with Microsoft as their first customer. The deregulation of the UK telecoms industry led to a drop-in service costs, and as a result the UK contact center industry became larger than in any other country except the USA.
ACDs systems fueled by innovation, such as the launch of First Direct in 1989. First Direct was the UK’s first direct-banking company and proclaimed itself ‘the future of banking’ with an unusual television advert.
By the Mid-90s Everyone Was at It
Sure enough, more banks would follow First Direct’s lead, with TSB Phonebank officially opening two 300-seat contact centers in Glasgow and Newport. These contact centers used ACD systems that linked with one another and enabled the company to route each call to the most appropriate advisor, across both sites.
Soon after, other banks felt the need to keep pushing innovation, with Nationwide opening up 24-hour banking services in 1995. This was supported by a system that allowed for speech recognition and IVR units.
Also, in 1995, Halifax moved on from having a separate customer service department to just having a 35-seat call center, which won European Call Centre of the Year less than two years later.
Up until the 1980s, call centers were connected to telephone networks using analog lines. But, from then on, the industry began to see the impact of digital connectivity.
The first wave of digital connectivity in the contact center came in the form of the DASS II (Digital Access Signaling System), which used digital trunk lines for connecting a PABX or ACD system to the telephone network.
For linking ACD and PABX systems, a DPNSS (Digital Private Network Signaling System) was used to network call centers.
However, by the 1990s – when digital technologies began to grow in sophistication – the DASS II systems began to be replaced by Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) systems, using the Euro-ISDN protocol.
With this transformation came a change in “communication protocol” – the set of rules installed in contact center systems to determine how information is sent from one system to another. So, the DPNSS protocol was replaced by QSIG.
However, things have progressed further since the 1990s, and the beginning of the 21st century saw the emergence of IP telephony systems. These systems allow contact centers to transmit telephone calls over the internet. With this system came the SIP protocol.
In late 1995, BT introduced Caller ID or Caller Line Identity (CLI), which enables the contact center to identify which customer is calling, before the advisor can pick up the phone. This function enabled the contact center to use innovative call routing strategies and made it easier for the caller’s details to “screen pop” onto the advisor’s screen.
The Introduction of Toll Free Telephone Numbers
In 1985, shortly after the term call center was created, the UK brought in 0800 numbers, as British Telecom introduced freephone services.
These 0800 numbers made the call center much more accessible, meaning that contact volumes began to soar, with the prospect as having simple queries resolved at no cost.
Yet, the introduction of freephone service came a remarkably long time after their introduction in the US. Across the pond they were introduced in 1967 as 800 numbers.
Dot com Mania
In the 1990s the call center industry continued to grow, spurred on by the rise of the internet. From 1995 onwards, internet-based ‘dot com’ companies attracted vast amounts of investment from venture capitalists excited by the potential for rapid growth offered by the online economy.
As websites became the central point of contact and sales for an increasing number of companies, call centers were essential in dealing with customer service and technical support. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and by 2001, the ‘dot com crash’ saw many internet-based companies go bust.
Rise of the Offshore Call Centre
The call center was still on the rise. By 2003, the industry consisted of 5,320 call center operations employing 800,000 people in the UK. 500,000 of these people were working in agent positions. The industry had grown by 250% since 1995, and was still growing.
The early 2000s saw a trend for large companies to transfer customer service departments overseas. Cheaper labour costs and, in some cases, better skills in the workforce made offshore call centers attractive to businesses seeking to cut costs.
Locations in India, the Philippines and South Africa aggressively marketed themselves as offshore call center destinations. India was particularly popular, as a large number of graduates available for call center work made for cheaper and technically able agents for technical support phone lines.
The Emergence of Cloud
1999 started the journey to the cloud when Salesforce appeared with its cloud-based CRM system. Initially aimed at sales teams, it started to spread across the rest of the enterprise.
While hosted solutions had been around for some time, Salesforce were a big driver in the support of the cloud concept.
Around 2004, cloud contact centers started to emerge, with companies like Basingstoke-based NewVoiceMedia being one of the pioneers.
However, this was a system that was “on-premise” – meaning that customer details could not be accessed in an emergency situation such as a power cut.
With this being a problem in the evolving contact center world, cloud contact centers started to emerge and have grown in popularity over the past decade.
For example, in November 2011 we found that 71% of contact centers had no plans to move to the cloud. But in our 2017 report “What contact centers are doing right now – How do you compare?”, we found that less than 41% responded in the same way, as shown below.
2011 – 2017: Call Centers Have Become Contact Centers
While the term “call center” is still used by many, most within the industry consider it to be outdated, with “contact center” being their preferred term.
The change from call to contact center is more reflective of the variety of contacts that “contact centers” now receive. For example, a call center would just send and receive phone calls, whereas a contact center would also handle email, live chat, letters and so forth.
2011: Social Media
The change from call to contact center coincided with the emergence of certain digital channels becoming mainstream within the industry. For example, in 2011, only 43% of contact centers responded to complaints on social media, but this figure is unthinkably low in today’s climate.
2013 – 2015: The Emergence of Live Chat
To further highlight the digital revolution that is happening in contact centers, the following two polls show the increased uptake in webchat – more commonly known as live chat – and social media from 2013 to 2015.
The growth of live chat and social media hasn’t just changed the name of the contact center. In fact, the automation opportunities that these channels allow for is also changing the makeup of the contact center.
2016 – Artificial Intelligence and Chatbots
It is quite difficult to forecast the impact that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will have on the contact center, but it certainly seems to be a strong focus for many contact center software firms.
Also, the fact that some contact centers are already using elements of it does suggest that it has a future. These AI uses include:
- Replacing IVR processes;
- Capturing data during customer interactions;
- Website navigation.
The first mainstream use of AI is in the back office. This is probably through the capture, analysis and sharing of data across different channels.
API-Based Contact Center Software
Companies can create the best contact center experience for their customers through application programming interfaces (APIs): routines, protocols, resources, and tools developers use to create software applications. APIs communicate between data and devices—they are how software components interact, and they underpin all of the ways we do the things we do online today.
Software based on APIs allow real time customer experiences over multiple channels (voice, chat, SMS, IVR, email, social media, etc.). They act as an automatic call distributor (ACD) that can route any task from multiple sources. And they maintain context of the conversation and surface customers to the correct agent through computer telephony integration (CTI) and WebRTC.
When you build your contact center with communication building blocks like Twilio’s programmable APIs, you can choose the channels and features you need and add more as your call center expands into multiple channels. APIs give you the flexibility to build the exact customer experience you want, and the freedom to iterate your IVR, call flows, and other aspects of your communications as frequently as you like.
There’s also a new option on the market: the programmable contact center platform. This contact center is based on APIs, but is instantly deployable out of the box. Unlike other off-the-shelf contact center solutions, which offer limited features and functionality, a programmable contact center platform is fully customizable at every layer of the stack. This allows businesses to both buy an out-of-the-box contact center and build a completely custom experience to meet their business objectives today or in the future.
Contact centers and areas of their usage
The largest percentage of companies actively using such centers falls on such areas of activity as finance, insurance and the telecommunications industry. Also it includes next spheres:
1) Services providing information services
Any company that provides its customers with the opportunity to receive information through various communication channels. has a similar service. The effectiveness of the operator of such a service depends on the level of training of the operator and the speed of information retrieval in a computer system. Contact center is connected with large volumes of databases, which allows operators to quickly issue any information even without special training.
2) Customer service and technical support services
Contact center is indispensable for technical support of a wide range of products and services of high-tech companies, such as consultations on the installation and use of software, computer equipment, etc.
3) Offices of large companies
Any large company faces with the problem of a large number of various calls in its work, which must be switched to the most competent and suitable operator for servicing such a call. An external call service center not only “rejects” incorrect calls using automated and operator services, but also provides call routing in the fastest and most correct way, depending on the configuration and ideology embedded in it by the customer.
4) Trading companies, booking and sales systems
For companies with several warehouses, the ability to organize a single entry point for requests, as well as the operational management of information intended for different branches, becomes especially valuable. Another example of the possible use of call centers is their use in the reservation and ticketing system.
5) Transport campaigns
Logistics, or traffic management information support, always depends on the large amount of incoming and outgoing information needed to route goods along the correct route, track the route, and notify about their delivery. These information flows can be optimally and efficiently processed by the contact center.
Integration of the Call Center with an automated banking system allows you to:
• give customers information from the database of the automated banking system;
• manage your account over the phone in full or limited form (with an operator or in automatic mode);
• contact the system operator, and through him with the required banking specialists, in his absence, leave a voice message;
• automate the issuance of reference, advertising and invoice information;
• reduce the cost of payment transactions;
• quickly change the parameters of advertising and reference information.